Recently we picked up an old boot on a farm walk. Not knowing where it came from, we felt lucky when we found another one. Then, over the next few weeks more and more appeared across the field and we discovered that the nearby moat had been dredged and the earth had been spread across the field. They had found about 40 pairs. So, once upon a time farm workers must have thrown their old boots into the moat. They are so evocative, taking you back to the time when so many people worked on the fields. But there is something sinister about them now. They seem to have been dissected – peeled apart over time to reveal their sturdy construction through the disintegrating layers of leather and rows of rusting nails determined to stay put. One has a horseshoe-shaped heel. I felt like a forensic artist as I painted them back to life. I aim to do another one soon showing the hobnails’ patterns on the soles and heels.
Several months ago I visited the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and was fascinated by their ‘visible storage’ area where they had simply laid out the contents of their storage boxes in display cabinets. It struck me as being an inspired method of displaying things. It makes these often-hidden objects – from Roman glass to stone age pots – accessible to everyone in a simple, uncontrived way.
The rows, unsurprisingly, appealed to me as well as the fact that once upon a time, these were everyday objects but had now become treasured and rare. I asked if I could visit the museum to draw/paint with the hope of thoroughly getting to know the objects. The museum have kindly let me visit once a week when they are shut and the objects can be taken to a place where I can study them. Drawing is my muse (I don’t know if that’s the right terminology but it feels right). While I sit, I admire what I see and I think about nothing but what is there. This absorption, together with colour sketches and notes, will lead on to paintings – at the moment the drawing is taking the lead and hopefully the paintings will follow.
I have been looking back over my work as I am having an exhibition in July which will include a selection of paintings done over the last 8 years (Edmund gallery, Angel Hill, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, 11 – 16 July 2015). It is also the 10th anniversary of the completion of the Cathedral’s Millennium Tower and so the exhibition extends into the Cathedral itself with a display of some of the work that I did as project artist.
It is at times like this, when I see a collection of my work together, that I can see the paths that I may have taken and I can mull over the reasons that I may have taken them.
How did I go from those architectural paintings to the still life paintings that I am doing now? How did the one inform the other? Surely it must have something to do with scrutinising all those indispensable bits and pieces that came together to make the Tower. Did this lead me on to scrutinise ordinary things from everyday life – paint brushes, scissors, screws, keys, nails – with their ‘wear and tear’ and multiple variations? And why do I paint these everyday objects in lines like specimens laid out for inspection? I am sure that it has something to do with the landscape of East Anglia – flat, open, honest and un-pampered with its rows of regimental trees planted to break the winds and its straight dykes dug to drain the land. I feel as if I have never really stopped painting the landscape (and I haven’t) even when I am painting still life.
I have enjoyed getting involved in some exhibitions closer to home recently. It’s a while since I have shown anything nearby and it is good to rediscover the wealth of history around here as well as reacquainting myself with three female artists – one working over 350 years ago, one working over 250 years ago and one working 80 years ago..
The Bury Festival in Bury St Edmunds, includes a new ‘Art Trail’ where contemporary artists’ work is dotted around the town in shop windows (thanks to Cate Hadley for organising all this). They all look great and seem particularly well matched to their venues. My long painting of scissors seemed quite appropriate for the Lawrence Paul Salon although it was pointed out that it didn’t have any hairdressers’ scissors in it!
The ‘Fresh eyes’ exhibition is in both the 12th century Moyse’s Hall Museum and the 21st century, award-winning Apex and shows local artists’ work alongside local museum treasures. I can’t complain about sitting on an easel at Moyse’s Hall next to work by James Tissot (1836 – 1902), Sir Peter Lely (1613-1680) and Angelica Kauffman (1741 – 1807) – that won’t happen again! Angelica Kauffman was one of only two female artists amongst the founder members of the Royal Academy (RA).
Left to right on wall – Kauffman, Tissot and Lely
The Apex is showing work by another, earlier female artist called Mary Beale (1633 – 1699) who was born in Bury st Edmunds and later worked in London. She knew Lely and, amazingly for her time, was a semi-professional portrait painter whose husband became her assistant. So that’s two female artists – Kauffman and Mary Beale – working over two hundred years ago in a very male-dominated world and still showing their work in the 21st century in Bury st Edmunds, Suffolk.
While I was at Moyse’s Hall I also said hello to one of my favourite paintings by another female artist from Bury st Edmunds called Rose Mead (1867 – 1946). It’s a painting of Barbara Stone, c1940, and here it is.
I have recently finished 2 more long paintings for the RI annual show this year (25 March 2015 to 11 April 2015 at the Mall galleries, London).
Nine scissors 35 x 96cm
A sharp painting – again the subject determined the background. I never realised how many scissors were hiding away around my house. Inherited, acquired, found. The orange-handled ones had spent about 4 years in my compost heap! The large wallpaper scissors belonged to my mother-in-law. The elegant ones on the far left belonged to my mother…….. years of use and history in everyday objects.
Bits 34 x 96cm
I live next door to a riding stables. I had no idea how many ‘bits’ there were, all with different uses depending on the size and temperament of a horse. Rather like previous paintings involving metal scaffold clips (see Gallery / Cross series) there is something rather sinister about these metal forms and I was captivated by the shadows and sense of movement that they conveyed.
I recently painted a very overdue wedding present for my niece and her husband (see above). The format got under my skin and I have since done several long thin paintings…….
Old keys 40 x 109cm
The keys came from a private collection – I saw them on a visit to an historic house in Suffolk (a couple of them were found in the moat). The owners kindly lent them to me to paint. Whether simple or complicated, solid or frail, they all held secrets at one time or another.
Seven paintbrushes 40 x 109cm
Backgrounds, or the lack of them, play an important part in these pictures. Whether full of suggestion or simply playful, I use them to enrich the impressions that the objects have made on me.
I was recently asked to paint a still life using objects from a family farm where there was to be a reunion of descendants from around the world. This cracked old turnip masher and well thumbed cookbook are the only items remaining from the centuries-old kitchen at Kenbally, Co Antrim. With the McNeill family scattered across the globe the picture provides an evocative image of a common past.
I have undertaken quite a few commissions when I have the freedom to translate them in my own way! They all have the same aim – to capture objects that mean something to someone. The potency of these personal everyday objects adds another dimension to what seems like a standard still life painting. I was particularly keen to make the background blend with the objects but not be too insipid or too dominant (weathered but not intrusive).
This painting is in the RI annual exhibition at the Mall galleries, London (2-19 April 2014). It may have been a simple subject but it was a bit of an adventure to paint! I was taken by lots of things – the restricted palette, the contrast of the curves against the square ‘cross hatching’ of the sacking, the ‘life history’ of the hooks …. but then I had to get down to painting it. The sacking was a challenge. I can’t stand fiddling. I like to put down whole ‘areas’. In the end, rather than paint from light to dark and add millions of dots at the end (and vaguely in the right place), I put in the time at the start by generally mapping out and then masking the threads. All I then had to do was a sweeping dark wash over it all, remove the mask, let the tiny ‘dark’ squares set well over a few days and then do general gentle washes of colour over the top in the comfort that the impression of sacking was there and I could build around that. Simple or not so simple?
The RI has a theme at its annual exhibition this year (Mall galleries, London, 2 – 19 April) which members can use if they want. ‘Gardens and gardening’ lends itself to my love of old tools, rust, dirt and general ordinariness. Kind friends have donated winter vegetables and well-loved tools to sit alongside ours. Today I hope to be starting on a tower of root vegetables – a vertical ‘row’ will be a welcome break from horizontal ones.